Imitation and emulation. The ancient Greek teacher Longinus is among the first persons to address what would become a recurrent theme in the history of rhetoric and literary criticism: the sublime (elevated emotion; ecstasy). His reflections on the sublime can be found in On Sublimity (first century C.E.); it is there that he invites would-be writers to enter into “the way of imitation and emulation of great writers of the past” (142). The poet Homer, for Longinus, is the gold-standard for imitation; he is the writer that both the historian Herodotus and the philosopher Plato read closely, looking for hints as to how their writing might produce in readers “wonder and astonishment” as opposed to language that is “merely persuasive and pleasant” (137).
Competition. The way that Herodotus and Plato read Homer was, in Longinus’s view, agonistic (competitive). If you’re a writer, you read a poet like Homer not just with the aspiration of learning from him, but of also matching or outdoing him: “Plato could not have put such a brilliant finish on his philosophical doctrines or so often risen to poetical subjects and poetical language, if he had not tried, wholeheartedly, to compete for the prize against Homer” (142). This idea of writing as competition was broadly shared by the ancient Greeks, whose most famous playwrights (Sophocles, Euripides, and Aristophanes) wrote for competitions put on each spring in honor of the god Dionysus. In Freudian terms, we might also say that competition is oedipal (akin to a son attempting to vanquish a father to obtain power or mates).
Imagine great writers as your audience. In reaching for sublime writing, Longinus recommends having great writers present to consciousness (143):
[I]t is good to imagine how Homer would have said the same thing, […] [G]reat figures [in the history of writing], presented to us as objects of emulation and, as it were, shining before our gaze, will somehow elevate our minds to the greatness of which we form a mental image. They will be even more effective if we ask ourselves ‘How would Homer or Demosthenes have reacted to what I am saying, if he had been here? What would his feelings have been?’ It makes it a great occasion if you imagine such a jury or audience […] and pretend that you are answering for what you write.
Immerse yourself in the atmosphere of books. It should be emphasized that by imitation Longinus is not advocating plagiarism. Rather, he likens the close reader of model writers to Pythia, famed priestess of Apollo at Delphi, who, when prophesying, stands in the midst of divine vapors that exhale from a “cleft in the ground” (142). This provides a hint as to how steeped in the aromatic liquors of great books Longinus thinks the serious aspirant to sublime writing should be. If you want to be an exemplary writer, it makes sense to be a cultist-like devotee of sublime authors.
A selection from Longinus’ On Sublimity begins on pg. 136 of The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism (edited by of Vincent Leitch, et. al., 2nd edition, 2010).
Taking the “emulation of great writers” notion a step further, an instructor once suggested that students copy a much-loved passage, verbatim and with pen and paper, in order to force that greatness into our muscle memory. Not sure if I buy the premise of that exercise but I like your suggestion of inviting the sublime into the subliminal by invoking the presence of great writers. The idea of competition is also refreshing; sometimes people get uncomfortable talking about “competitive writing,” but let’s get real.
Yes, I did exactly that with Thoreau’s Walden when I was a teenager. It’s how I learned to write. I came upon the idea on my own and didn’t know that copying out “masters” was a classic technique for teaching writing. I watched how Thoreau placed his punctuation, tried to intuit the rhythm of his sentences, tried to figure out how it was that he could write such a gorgeously dense paragraph. I wrote and typed out pages and pages of Throreau. I filled whole notebooks. When it came to writing, no English teacher taught me much of anything to my purposes; Thoreau was my teacher, and I’m certain I wouldn’t be an English professor today if I had not engaged in the close reading and writing out of Thoreau.
When I was courting the woman who is now my wife, who is also an English professor, we would write letters to one another back and forth, and at one point she told me that I sometimes sounded like Thoreau in my writing style, and she didn’t know that that’s who I’d always emulated.
I used to have vast tracts of Walden in my head in the way that some Christians have the Bible. Anyway, that’s my story. I’ve recommended the technique to my students over the past decade, but never forced them to do it in a sustained way. I’ve never had a student, a year later, come back to me and tell me that they tried it voluntarily, and that it helped them.. But I was motivated, obviously, and had a proclivity to bookishness.
I can still pull Thoreau, almost verbatim, out of my head, but with some effort nowadays::”The farmer tells me he cannot live on vegetable food only, for ‘it furnishes nothing to make bones with!’ This he says while his ox, with vegetable-made bones, pulls both him and his lumbering plow along in spite of every obstacle.” That’s not it, exactly, but I’ve still got it (sort of).
Here’s one more. “The farmer, hearing Plato’s definition of a man–a biped without feathers–and that one exhibited a plucked cock and called it a man, he thought it an important difference that the knees bent the wrong way.” Again, that’s probably not exactly it, but it’s in the ballpark, and it’s how I learned to write. It was the music in my head.
Thanks for provoking me to write out this story from my life.
Wonderful. There was a time in undergrad when I paraphrased Thomas Carlyle every weekend; perhaps I should transcribe Sartor Restartus and see what happens. Although the magic might not work in middle age, with my synapses already cemented in mediocrity.